Ember, Translator of Hamlet
by Christine Raguet-Bouvart
translated from the French by Jeff Edmunds
page three of three

Bless thee, Bottom! bless thee! thou art translated.26

To choose an ass’s head as an emblem of translation--whether it be literal rendering or slippery shift--is not to express a form of condescension, or even distrust, toward translators in general, Ember or Nabokov in particular, but simply to embody this transformative function, which can sometimes play sinister tricks. The choice is also apt because Bottom’s metamorphosis symbolizes the movement from one body to another, that transmigration which Nabokov evoked and which must be accompanied by other--notably phraseological--changes in order to be accepted without difficulty by those addressed. This raises the question of identity and authority--the authority of the ‘auctor’ who founds the literary texts, and of him who transmits a right. This questions relates also to the first working title of Bend Sinister, “The Person from Porlock,” which poses in other terms the problem of authority by means of the characters and their author(s).

When, in chapter 7, the narrator introduces Shakespeare, he immediately muses about his identity by digressing on engravings and other documents used by the Baconians, but uses the polemic to play on the ambiguity of the names Bacon and Ham-let to reintroduce the theme of the translator and finally that of Olga’s death. Once again, whereas this chapter seems to transport the reader into the Shakespearean world, the narrator specifies anew the fictional limits of his novel. This is an important point, for one of Krug’s objectives will in fact be to try to quit these limits to escape tyranny, and the only one to permit him to succeed, at the end of the diegesis, will be his creator, already indicated here: “the glory of God is to hide a thing, and the glory of man is to find it” (BS, 106). The close bond woven by the writing between Adam Krug, man par excellence--who could be the spiritual father of the new Ekwilist nation--and the demiurge, reveals itself as the text unfolds. Furthermore, shortly thereafter the reader is invited to resituate the action at the verbal level: “philosophers and poets [are] accustomed to believe that words are superior to deeds,” thus in a world made of words it will be the words that necessarily have precedence. This is why the primary function of the digression on Hamlet is not to emphasize the political theme of the novel, whose force is sufficient in and of itself, but to lead the reader into Ember’s wake, and to have him understand that the latter’s translation, like the preceeding ones, is a form of textual subversion that seeks to reduce the text to a story line and thus to enclose it in the totalitarianism of words. Moreover, Nabokovian irony interrupts the digression on the translation of Hamlet with Ember’s arrest: “‘The chief difficulty that assails the translator of the following passage,’ said Ember [...] ‘the chief difficulty--’” (BS, 122).

In Bend Sinister, the reader is confronted by a strange duality--that of translation and creation, just as Ember and Krug are confronted by an absurd duality in the course of the conversation preceding Ember’s arrest: “‘that’s queer.’ [...] Two organ-grinders were standing there a few paces from each other, neither of them playing [...] ‘it’s a very singular picture. An organ-grinder is the very emblem of oneness. But here we have an absurd duality.’” (BS, 121). To accompany this phenomenon and the upheaval it causes, the narrator places in the mouths of the two agents come to carry out the arrest German expressions that are left untranslated, as they are very banal in this context: “und so weiter” (BS, 123), “Heraus, Mensch, marsch” (BS, 125). The evocative effect of the sounds of clipped German interjections underlines the tension of the moment and permits reterritorialization of the violence. In the same rush Ember allows himself to express his distress in French, again without the narrator’s offering a translation: “‘Et voilà...et me voici...’ [...] Un pauvre bonhomme qu’on traîne en prison. Oh, I don’t want to go at all! Adam isn’t there anything that can be done. Think up something, please! Je suis souffrant, je suis en détresse...” (BS, 127). Thereafter it is easy to imagine that to each language corrrespond certain states of mind, as if Nabokov wished to couple language and style to show to what extent the linguistic factor influences the mode of expression. Thus in order to translate, and a fortiori to compose, in another language, it is necessary to know how to transform cultural subtleties into linguistic niceties, to establish new cultural frontiers. Nabokov’s idea of translation, however, did not allow him to apply these methods. Thus in his review of Three Russian Poets, Philip Toynbee does not fail to emphasize: “A curious and not unpleasing fact about the verse of Mr Nabokov is that it constantly and felicitously echoes the tones of certain English poets. In translating Pushkin, echoes of Byron are, of course, inevitable [...] For myself, I can see no objection to these echoes, though there is perhaps that they may introduce yet another obscuring term between the original version and ourselves.”27

Finally, all the violence that language--whichever one it might be--endures in Bend Sinister stages the murder of the mother tongue and the quest for a new authority by metamorphosis. Consequently the territory of the mother tongue must be deterritorialized for the new lingua franca, which must create a new space wherein new cultural markers will be placed. This process of deterritorialization is effected throughout the novel by means of linguistic amalgams, which in his introduction Nabokov calls “the hybridization of tongues” (BS, xv), and suggested false renderings. But the process is carried to absurdity, since Ember, following others, almost undertakes the deterritorialization of Shakespeare so as to seize hold of him, without comprehending that the passage from one territory to the other is not effected by means of appropriating the author, but the language.

Curiously, an inventory of the expressions in languages other than English, given without translation, reveals that French comes very clearly first (in extremely diverse forms, from the approximate and incorrect expressions of the French professor, to literary citations, as well as phrases included in the course of the narrative), followed by Latin (expressions of a proverbial nature for the most part). As for German and Russian, their presence is almost negligible: they are practically always accompanied by a translation (exact or inexact), to say nothing of the hybrid language, which is also given with its supposed translation. What is Nabokov’s purpose in using this device? He empties certain languages of their affective content to make them into tools that will serve him in modelling his new language of expression, and thereby in accomplishing his metamorphosis. Kafka, who did not write in his mother tongue, appears several times in the novel in the company of Gregor. Nabokov, like Kafka, after having decontextualized his native tongue, did not seek to establish new norms in the new language of creation, which becomes a creation in and of itself. This is a process that Ember initiates, with limited success, in Bend Sinister, and which Nabokov fully exploits in Ada and Pale Fire. The author acquires his authority by placing himself on the stage of writing and making the enactment his own. It is for this very reason that Paduk, the tyrant, and the padograph his father invented--a machine that reproduces handwriting, thus a device for manufacturing manuscripts mechanically--never accedes to supreme authority but fades away into nothingness: “Paduk, his features dissolving in the water of fear, had slipped from his chair and was trying to vanish” (BS, 240). In the world of the simulacrum, Nabokov has two seats; first, that of translator: here, he faithfully imitates the original, and in his loyalty to the original he realizes only a poor copy insofar as it establishes no new cultural frontiers; and second, that of creator: here, in instituting new linguistic, cultural, and artistic particulars that are perfectly original, he establishes an entire system that he will evolve until the end of his life, which makes of this tongue a unique object, a new language--itself untranslatable? Perhaps akin to that of Shakespeare, the writer par excellence, the immutable model:

Nature had once produced an Englishman whose domed head had been a hive of words; a man who had only to breathe on any particle of his stupendous vocabulary to have that particle live and expand and throw out tremulous tentacles until it became a complex image with a pulsing brain and correlated limbs. Three centuries later, another man, in another country, was trying to render these rhythms and metaphors in another tongue. This process entailed a prodigious amount of labour, for the necessity of which no real reason could be given [...] imitation presupposed a voluntary limitation of thought, in submission to another man’s genius. Could this suicidal limitation and submission be compensated by the miracle of adaptive tactics, by the thousand devices of shadography, by the keen pleasure that the weaver of words and their witness experienced at every wile in the warp, or was it, taken all in all, but an exaggerated and spiritualized replica of Paduk’s writing machine? (BS, 119-120)
By inflicting on Shakespeare’s English the tortures it is made to endure in Bend Sinister, Nabokov offers us the dream of the absolute language--at once tool and completed object--whose force is such that, like Krug, thanks to its creator’s power, it eludes the basest martyrdom.

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26. A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, III, I, 122.

27. The collection included Nabokov’s translations of poems by Lermontov, Tyutchev, and Pushkin. Toynbee’s review appeared in The New Stateman on August 7, 1948.

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